Rundown: Dragged fourteen hopped-up teenagers into the Patagonian wilderness for Nido's Week Without Walls program.
Location: Valle Colonia, Aysen Region, Chilean Patagonia
Flew fourteen high school students from Santiago two hours south to Coyhaique in the controversial Aysen region. A project to build a massive hydroelectric dam(n) is in progress. Throwing the kids into the debate and out of their comfort zone was the prime objective of the trip.
Jonathan Leidich, the operations mastermind of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions (PAEX), is a bear of a man with an immense positive aura and contagious sense of humor. He and his team took impeccable care of all of us.
After getting a pick up from the tiny airport in Coyhaique we took eroding roads two hours farther south. Crossed several deceptively strong rivers, one via a pontoon system that used only the water current to push it back and forth across groaning cables. We spent the night in sleepy Cochrane where horses, dogs, and our wide-eyed students roamed freely. What trouble can you get into in a town that size?
The next day we loaded into the bed of Jonathan's massive off-road vehicle, an old German army truck, and took the road less traveled by. Mud flew.
We eventually camped out near an abandoned farmstead. Our gaucho guides put the kids to work making food and then taught them the custom of mate after dinner.
Before it got too dark I snuck off and got a few casts in the icy river. Wouldn't have minded a little trucha for breakfast, but it was not to be.
We got a frosting in the mountains over night but didn't feel it in my heavy bag.
Loaded back up in the T-ruck and drove for a bit longer then threw the kids out to hike upstream.
Crossed the river four kids at a time on an inflatable. Hector Soto, one of the gaucho guides, manned the oars and didn't lose anyone over the side.
After regrouping and a final hour hike we reached Sol de Mayo, one of a scant few ranches in the area.
Lots of grazing space around to set up tents. Just watch out for those sheep bombs. Makes for a smelly night.
The kids fell into the rhythm of the gaucho lifestyle. Over the next couple of days around Sol de Mayo they started to get the hang of working together, and the fruits of a more basic existence. Lambs were born and died. The realities of life weighed on the students.
After a few days in Sol de Mayo, we hiked up to a long lake planning to cross to the Patagonian ice fields via zodiac. This view was as close as we got to the ice fields! Dang!
The zodiac had been punctured in a wind storm a few days earlier. We didn't realize until it was almost fully inflated. The fickle weather in Patagonia steered us toward caution. We didn't have time to repair the boat, so we switched to Plan B.
The kiddos didn't really know what they were missing, so it was not a big deal to them. We made a plan to hike up a different valley for two days and try to get to a hanging glacier at the end where Jonathan had only been once or twice before, and then without any 'chickens' to guide.
So away we went, bushwhacking through the undergrowth. These city slickers hadn't done anything of the sort before. Their first time off trail in the thick of it was the real deal!
Up and up we hiked along a steely river. The terrain became aggressive at times, and we had to clamber up rocky, woody slopes. The going got muddy and cold. We moved the kids fast though.
And then we were at the glacial lake in a bowl in the mountains, a hanging glacier rewarding us for our sweat. We ate meat, cheese, fruit, bread, and chocolate. The kids wolfed it down, quietly watching the surroundings.
We camped low that night and the next day returned to Sol de Mayo in the late evening, weary.
For our last night the gauchos butchered a sheep. The boys watched and even ate some of the heart. Strong lads. I'm sure it was a new experience for them. The sheep was staked out over an open fire for a few hours, Patagonian style in the smoke house. We feasted that night.
We only lost one nerd over the side (can you guess which?) We quickly dried him off and kept him warm by paddling. Jonathan did a fantastic job piloting the raft. It was here in an edie pool he told us while we floated about his history in Patagonia, how he fell in love with the place, and what the hydroelectric dam meant for this unspoiled place.
With fresh perspective and fresh clothes soon to come, we happily transferred to a boat that intercepted our rafts.
We were driven back to Cochrane where Jonathan's lovely wife made all the kids pizza after they were showered and didn't smell so bad.
One more night in Patagonia and then the city slickers were back in Santiago. Different than they had left.
Check out the video our videographer Rodrigo put together for us: